Use practices to give your team the experiences they need to deal with stress in matches.

Imagine this: it's the middle of the fifth set, your team is down 10-11, and it’s your serve. Oh, and did I mention it's the state championship and their best hitter has rotated to the front row? 

If situations like this put you on the edge of your seat, imagine what they do to your players. High-pressure games cause your athletes to react in one of two ways—they’ll rise to the occasion or they’ll crumble. 

While it's difficult to simulate the same kind of intensity in practice, it's important to prepare your athletes for these moments. Situational practices and drills can help.

First to Five Drill

This one is simple and fast. I separate my athletes into teams and we play a few short games throughout practice. To make them as real as possible, we use a whistle and scoreboard. The first to five wins, and the losing team faces a consequence—usually conditioning work, like sprints. After each five-point game, we talk about what we could have done better and what went well. At the end of practice, the team with the most wins gets to choose a consequence for the other side.

You can also play the same way, but change the stakes to the first team to 25, and start at 20-20. The last five points of a match are where you need to be able to execute and be aggressive. I also find that players can stray from the game plan by the end of a match, which can end in a frustrating loss.

Why this drill?

The first five points and the last five points are both crucial. Getting off to a quick start is critical in controlling the match. Many players are nervous in those first few moments of the game, so the goal of this drill is to simulate that and start to get them comfortable. Likewise, if your players are usually tired or losing focus by the end of a match, this drill can help them combat that in the future.

Card Drill

To start, you’ll need 12 cards. On each one, write a different situation. I write mine based on what we usually come across in a game. 

For example, the situation could be that your team is up 20-18, you're starting in rotation one, it's set two, and the opposing team has the serve. Each card is worth a different amount of points. Give the easiest situations the lowest points and more to the harder situations. 

The drill starts with team A choosing a card, without looking at the situation. You read the card aloud to both teams and they play out the situation. If Team A wins, they get to keep the points. If Team B wins, they keep half the points the card was worth. At the end of practice, whichever side has the most points gets to choose a consequence for the other side.

Why this drill?

It’s a player favorite! They love to see the situations we pick out and how they change every time. This drill is also great because you can also customize it to fit the needs of your team. You’ll have more productive conversations with your athletes, and be better prepared for high-stress situations. I've seen first-hand how this drill can have a significant impact on my team's ability to perform under pressure.

Take It Further

While it’s important to simulate pressure in practice with drills like these, it’s just as important to talk to your players about those situations. If you’re running a drill and see one side making mistakes, stop the drill. Pull those players aside and ask them about it. Why are you frustrated? What can you do to change the situation? I ask my players to rate the pressure they’re feeling on a scale of 1-5. These conversations can be exactly what they need to refocus. 

You could also give them ideas on how to cope with that pressure. For example, I tell my players to give each other eye contact when they’re in huddles and come together after each play. And as the pressure mounts in a match, I know it’s important to set a good example and stay as calm as I can be. When your players can tell you’re stressed, they’ll react similarly. 

Tell them to take deep breaths. I do this during match timeouts and in practice. Remember, everyone makes mistakes. Volleyball is a game of errors. I tell them it’s okay to mess up—just learn from it and make better decisions going forward.  

Lind­say Peter­son has been a var­si­ty head coach for eight years. She played for the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Alaba­ma, help­ing them win the DII Nation­al Cham­pi­onship in 2003. Peter­son has led her Mil­lard North High School team to the state cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment sev­en times, win­ning in 2016 and 2018. She was named one of the top 40 coach­es in the coun­try by the AVCA, and Coach of the Year by the Oma­ha World-Herald.